What do the different courts do?

Contact with a court

Contact with a court can occur in your life if:

  • you initiate legal proceedings for the protection of your rights;
  • someone has filed a claim against you with a court;
  • the court is processing a claim that has not been directly filed against you, but where the ruling made by the court may have an impact on your rights;
  • the court starts discussing an offence that involves you;
  • you are summoned to court to give the evidence required for the correct resolution of a court case.

Below is a brief overview of the various types of cases resolved in courts. Estonian courts solve four types of cases, which are civil matters, administrative matters, misdemeanour matters and criminal matters. Civil matters, misdemeanour matters and criminal matters are resolved by county courts as courts of the first instance whilst administrative courts resolve administrative matters. The appeals filed against the judgments of county and administrative courts as well as the appeals against the rulings made by courts of the first instance in judicial proceedings are reviewed by circuit courts. The appeals in cassation or special appeals filed against the judgements or orders made by circuit courts are resolved by the Supreme Court as the court of the highest instance.

The proceedings concerning all court cases start in courts of the first instance. Going through the mandatory pre-trial procedure is a precondition to litigation in respect of some court cases. For example, you must contact the Public Procurement Appeals Committee before disputing the decisions made in procurements and the acts of investigative bodies made in the pre-trial proceedings of criminal matters can be disputed in county courts if the prosecutor’s office has denied the complaint previously filed about the activities of the investigative body. Also, some court cases cannot be heard in all three court instances – for example, the judgment made by an extra-judicial body in a misdemeanour matter can be disputed in a county court and appealed directly in the Supreme Court in the case of disagreement with the ruling made by the county court.

A civil matter

A civil matter is a court case resolved pursuant to the procedure provided for in the Code of Civil Procedure. Civil matters are resolved by county courts as courts of the first instance. Within the scope of a civil case, the court either resolves a dispute arising from a private law relationship between persons (action) or decides, in the case set forth by law, on the emergence, expiry or scope of the rights of persons also if there is no direct dispute between the parties (proceedings on petition).

A private law relationship is a relationship between persons that is not associated with the exercise of official authority. The disputes arising from law concern, for example, the performance of contractual relationships, compensation of the damage caused by one person to another, the maintenance obligations related to family members and the material relationships between spouses, breaches of ownership rights, issues related to the management of companies, etc. The scope of private law disputes is vast and covers all areas of private law, such as the law of obligations, law of property, family law, law of succession, company law, etc.

An administrative matter

An administrative matter is a court case that is resolved pursuant to the procedure set forth in the Code of Administrative Court Procedure and that entails resolution of disputes arising from public law relationships or deciding on the grant of permission for the performance of certain acts to administrative bodies. Administrative matters are reviewed by administrative courts as courts of the first instance.

The body exercising official authority, such as a state or local government authority or a person performing public functions on the basis of the administrative contacts entered into with them, is one of the parties to a public law relationship. An example of the latter is a person who decides on parking fines on the basis of the administrative contract entered into with a local government. Disputes concerning taxation, establishment of spatial plans, the grant of building permits, environmental permits and various other public law permits, grant of residence permits, organisation of public procurements, issue of precepts in the course of state supervision, payment of pensions and various benefits, etc. are resolved within the scope of administrative matters.

A misdemeanour matter

A misdemeanour matter is a court case resolved pursuant to the procedure set forth in the Code of Misdemeanour Procedure and within the scope of which a county court decides whether the person is guilty of committing a misdemeanour and imposes a punishment on the person, or verifies that the punishment imposed by the extra-judicial body is correct. Misdemeanour matters are resolved by county courts as courts of the first instance.

Misdemeanour is a minor offence stipulated in the Penal Code or another act for which the main punishment set forth by law is a pecuniary punishment, detention or deprivation of the right to drive a vehicle. For example, misdemeanours are various violations of traffic law (§§ 201 et seq. of the Traffic Act), as well as violations of public order (subsection 262 (1) of the Penal Code) or fishing without a permit (subsection 75 (1) of the Fishing Act).

A criminal matter

A criminal matter is a court case resolved pursuant to the procedure set forth in the Code of Criminal Procedure and primarily a court case within the scope of which the court decides whether the person charged with a crime by the prosecutor is guilty of committing the crime and imposes a punishment on the person. Criminal matters are resolved by county courts as courts of the first instance. Criminal offences are the serious offences stipulated in the Penal Code for which the main punishment is a pecuniary punishment or imprisonment in the case of a natural person and a pecuniary punishment in the case of a legal entity.

Although the terms ‘pecuniary punishment’ and ‘fine’ seem similar, the use of one or the other in the respective provision of the Penal Code determines whether the act is a criminal offence or a misdemeanour. Upon the emergence of the elements of a crime, the person – e.g. the victim – cannot contact a court directly and demand punishment of the alleged offender, but they must inform the police of the committed crime first of all, which will be followed by the initiation of criminal proceedings, and such a criminal matter can be taken to court via the prosecutor filing charges.